A CEO Who Mattered

by RALPH NADER

Insurance, art, architecture, civil liberties, auto safety, think tanks, peace, free thinkers, political candidates, marijuana, his alma mater Princeton University — these and other varied interests drove the inquiring career of the late Peter Lewis, chairman of the board of Progressive Insurance, who passed away at age 80 last month.

He interacted with many people who sparked his sense of the “unconventionally possible” as he built Progressive into the nation’s fourth largest auto insurer and made himself into one of the nation’™s leading philanthropists.

Peter was my classmate at Princeton. More than 25 years ago, I suggested he equip his company cars with air bags, both to prevent costly crash injuries to his employees and also to set an example for other insurance companies to give meaning to their “loss prevention” rhetoric. At lunch, he grasped the suggestion immediately and agreed. When I called for a progress report, he casually said it was done, as if to say, what else did you expect?

I never expected much in talking to corporate chiefs about what they should do in their own and the public’™s interest. In my experience, they had difficulty listening to anything not on their bureaucratic wavelength. With Peter it was different, and not because of any Princeton connection.

For example, he heard about my remarks that insurance companies were not engaged in meaningful competition. On a trip to Washington, D.C., we had lunch and he said that the big auto insurers compete like crazy. “œWhat do you mean?” he asked.

I replied that State Farm, Allstate, Geico, Progressive, etc. competed against each other in ads, marketing, sales incentives and imagery, but not directly for the consumers’™ benefit. I explained that it was almost impossible for the average customer to compare policies and prices between the various companies. His eyes lit up. It wasn’™t long before the famously successful Progressive ads were offering free competitors’™ rates, including Progressive’s, even if the latter was higher than one or more of the other auto insurers.

Other proposals he thought about and turned down. One that he considered too complicated was for Progressive to build a few prototype safety cars in order to push the auto companies to liberate their engineers and build more crash-worthy vehicles with better handling and therefore fewer claims. This idea stemmed from the pioneering Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. project in the 1950s when it rebuilt a much safer Chevrolet.

However, in the early ’90s, Peter made sure Progressive was a financial supporter of the effective new group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Another proposal was to fund organizers who would convince coalitions in major cities across the country to demand that presidential debates come to their communities in 2012. This would break the grip of the three “œdebates” choreographed by the Republican and the Democratic parties, through their creation, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). CPD is a private nonprofit that picks the reporters, invites only candidates from its two patron parties and solicits corporate donations for its budget. Peter “œloved the idea,” but after considerable back and forth, concluded it was not possible to pull it off.

Peter was deeply serious about civil liberties and worried about invasions of privacy, repression of dissenting views and government snooping in the aftermath of 9/11. He became the largest individual donor to the American Civil Liberties Union, with a record-breaking endowment gift of $7 million. He hated President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which he called “a disaster in all ways,” and funded civic opposition, including ours, to this worsening, brutal quagmire.

As a prominent Democrat, he supported John Kerry’™s presidential campaign with many millions of dollars. After Bush’s re-election and Kerry’s wishy-washy performance in 2004, he told me he was pretty much turned off of political campaigns.

He became “œmore focused on building the institutions that will facilitate and support progressive policy for years into the future.” As was his wont, he went beyond by helping launch Media Matters and the Center for American Progress, and was the founder of the Management Center, which conducts seminars to help nonprofits be more efficient and effective.

Once Peter joked that before joining the Princeton University Board of Trustees, the due diligence report called him a “œfunctional pothead.” Yet to my knowledge, he was known for promptly returning calls. He suffered pain — his leg was amputated below the knee due to chronic infection and poor circulation — but rarely exclaimed it. Instead he responded by becoming physically fit.

As a major patron of the arts from his hometown in Cleveland to New York City and elsewhere, he saw artists as making people view their surroundings through innovative, irreverent eyes. At Progressive’™s headquarters, he hung Andy Warhol’™s “œMao” portraits and relished the anger of some employees, noting that at least they were stimulated.

Whenever I asked him how business was, he would talk about how “œterrific” his successor — New Zealander Glenn Renwick — was as CEO, before noting some new approach like “œinstant claims service.”

Occasionally he expressed disappointment about his and other charitable and political contributions not getting results. “I’m at the edge of despair” about the state of the country, he confessed several years ago.

That disappointment, bordering on resignation, seemed to come forth during a discussion I arranged at the New York Public Library with Peter and Ted Turner, two of the protagonists in my book, “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” — a work of political fiction that could inspire real world change. He began to doubt whether any major proposals for change could break through.

But Peter had so many irons in the fire that he always found sources of resiliency. And he liked to shock people out of their comfort zone. Earlier this year, he relayed a conversation that he had with the new president of Princeton, Christopher L. Eisgruber, wherein he urged the Princeton football program be dropped. Even though Peter is Princeton’s largest benefactor in the modern era ($220 million), he may have stepped out of bounds on that one. Which is just what the boundary-breaker expected, to turn silence now into conversation later.

Peter Lewis put so many forces in motion that his beloved extended family need not wonder about a legacy. They grieve through the enlivening presences, futures and memories he gave them. He leaves behind a candid forthcoming autobiography that should show how he kept evolving and renewing himself to the benefit of many people.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 03, 2015
Lynn Holland
For the Love of Water: El Salvador’s Mining Ban
Geoff Dutton
Time for Some Anger Management
Jack Rasmus
The New Colonialism: Greece and Ukraine
Norman Pollack
American Jews and the Iran Accord: The Politics of Fear
John Grant
Sorting Through the Bullshit in America
David Macaray
The Unbearable Lightness of Treaties
Chad Nelson
Lessig Uses a Scalpel Where a Machete is Needed
September 02, 2015
Paul Street
Strange Words From St. Bernard and the Sandernistas
Jose Martinez
Houston, We Have a Problem: False Equivalencies on Police Violence
Henry Giroux
Global Capitalism and the Culture of Mad Violence
Ajamu Baraka
Making Black Lives Matter in Riohacha, Colombia
William Edstrom
Wall Street and the Military are Draining Americans High and Dry
David Altheide
The Media Syndrome Between a Glock and a GoPro
Yves Engler
Canada vs. Africa
Ron Jacobs
The League of Empire
Andrew Smolski
Democracy and Privatization in Neoliberal Mexico
Stephen Lendman
Gaza: a Socioeconomic Dead Zone
Norman Pollack
Obama, Flim-Flam Artist: Alaska Offshore Drilling
Binoy Kampmark
Australian Border Force Gore
Ruth Fowler
Ask Not: Lost in the Crowd with Amanda Palmer
Kim Nicolini
Remembering Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America
Louis Proyect
Jacobin and “The War on Syria”
Lawrence Wittner
Militarism Run Amok: How Russians and Americans are Preparing Their Children for War
Binoy Kampmark
Tales of Darkness: Europe’s Refugee Woes
Ralph Nader
Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!
Peter Koenig
Greece: a New Beginning? A New Hope?
Dean Baker
America Needs an “Idiot-Proof” Retirement System